Rachel Bair, Director for Sustainable Food Systems at Kalamazoo Valley, speaks to local business leaders about sustainability - and ValleyHUB's role in it.
An Expo Invitation!
In October 2022, Pure Michigan Business Connect invited ValleyHUB to be an exhibitor at a Supplier-Buyer Meet-Up event hosted in conjunction with Southwest Michigan First and the Kalamazoo Chamber of Commerce.
Josh gathered up some of our new outreach materials and grabbed a pepper plant from the greenhouse (pro tabling tip: plants are great conversation starters). We spent an energizing morning connecting with local business owners of all types. There were communications firms, staffing agencies, manufacturers, and fabricators - even a person launching a business to build off-grid methane-based small power plants to charge electric vehicles (whoa). We made great connections and gained a better sense of the scale and type of businesses in our local ecosystem.
Local Businesses Having the Hard Conversations
Meanwhile, I (Rachel) was invited to speak as a part of a Fireside Chat over lunch on a panel that included Kalsec, Consumers Energy, and Gibson (insurance, not guitars). These three local businesses are deeply committed to our community in Southwest Michigan and generate significant economic activity and investment. We discussed COVID-19 supply chain disruptions and corporate commitments to sustainability and diversity.
Derek Nofz from Consumers shared that his company will invest $1.5 billion in upgrades to our power infrastructure over the next several years.
Holly Rogers-Rios from Kalsec spoke of how the far-away farm producing the carrots for Kalsec's naturally-derived food colorings had a total crop failure. She, however, was able to work with a local Michigan farm to grow a crop of carrots and planned to continue rebuilding local supply networks for ingredients.
Tim Leman confronted the roots of the insurance industry, which began as an endeavor to underwrite trans-Atlantic shipping in the 1500s - acknowledging that his company's lack of diversity is deeply rooted in oppression and committing to do better.
It was a powerful conversation, and Bronwyn Drost from Southwest Michigan First facilitated it well.
Bronwyn's question for me was a sticky one:
As an organization whose business model has always been solely based around local sourcing, can you tell us how this has been successful at creating real economic impact?
Sitting there with such real economic players, this question was a bit intimidating - but here's what I said:
If we are talking about economic impact in real dollars, I have to make it clear: ValleyHUB is tiny. Our gross annual sales have never exceeded $500,000 - and when we're at our largest, I don't expect we'll exceed $2 million. And, let's be transparent - we're not remotely profitable. We cover our direct costs and are generously funded by the College and several government grants to do what we do - because it's a service to the community.
The businesses we work with are small too - some even smaller than us. They are financially risky, and we're all operating in a system that favors scale and the efficiencies that come with it. Our role is to open doors, smooth the logistics, and make local transactions possible for the small players - and efficient enough that they are justifiable to the larger players as well. So, for example, we can help small farms connect with small retailers like PFC Natural Grocery, but we can also help them scale up just enough to sell to larger food purchasers like Bronson Hospital's food service.
An additional $5000 or $15,000 in sales is a rounding error to Consumers or Kalsec - but for a small farm, it could be the difference between staying open or not this year; next year, it could be the difference between their investing in growth or not. If Kalsec is looking for local farms as partners - they first need farms to exist. Our social enterprise at ValleyHUB exists for that reason. It's a long game.
In this Fireside Chat, one of our major themes is sustainability - and my colleagues will tell you about their commitments to energy efficiency and resource use reduction, and other environmental impacts - but a crucial part of sustainability within the climate chaos we are experiencing is resilience. Diversity underpins resilience. This is especially important in the food system. We all need to eat, and someone needs to grow that food, and Michigan is the most diverse agricultural state in our country that has a reliable source of water.
We need businesses of all sizes and efficient ways for those businesses to connect - to ensure continued economic resilience. So, back to the question, what is our real economic impact? In dollars, it's negligible. But the investment we are helping make in the viability and future growth of food and farm businesses will surely be measured for years to come.